American authorities are demanding the release from a Russian jail of one of the biggest names in women’s basketball.
WNBA and US basketball star Brittney Griner was arrested several weeks ago after vape cartridges believed to contain hashish oil were apparently found in her luggage at an airport near Moscow.
Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee confirmed at the weekend that Griner – the 31-year-old Phoenix Mercury centre – had been detained by Russian officials “for almost a month”. She faces charges of smuggling narcotics into the country, even as its deadly invasion of Ukraine continues.
The Russia Federal Customs Service said on Saturday an American woman had been charged, but did not immediately identify her as Griner.
“As a US citizen was passing through the green channel at Sheremetyevo Airport upon arriving from New York. A working dog from the Sheremetyevo Customs canine department detected the possible presence of narcotic substances in the accompanying luggage,” the statement read, according to CNN.
“The customs inspection of the hand luggage being carried by the US citizen confirmed the presence of vapes with specifically smelling liquid, and an expert determined that the liquid was cannabis oil (hash oil), which is a narcotic substance.”
Video later released by the Russian Federal Customs Service identified Griner as the passenger involved.
The confirmation of her arrest came as it emerged she had already spent more than three weeks in custody.
Griner has won two Olympic gold medals and is a two-time WNBA scoring leader. She has played nine WNBA seasons with the Mercury, being named All-Star seven times.
Like many American basketballers, Griner also plays in Russia in the US off-season.
Ms Lee called for Griner’s arrest to be handled “diplomatically”, as fears grow Russia might use the US basketballer as a “high-profile hostage”, The Guardian reports.
“Let me be very clear, Brittney Griner is a United States citizen. She was a guest in Russia … I will be demanding her release,” Ms Jackson Lee said on Saturday.
She noted “how dangerous it is right now in Moscow”, and especially “Moscow prisons”. Russians are being arrested in their thousands for opposing President Vladimir Putin’s war with Ukraine.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, posted a picture of the couple on social media on Saturday, thanking her partner’s supporters.
“Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me regarding my wife’s safe return from Russia. Your prayers and support are greatly appreciated,” she wrote.
“I love my wife wholeheartedly, so this message comes during one of the weakest moments of my life.”
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas said her representatives had been in close contact with her since her arrest, as had her lawyers in Russia, some family members and basketball teams.
The WNBA said in a statement that the two-time Olympic gold medallist had the “full support” of the league and that its “main priority was her swift and safe return to the United States”.
Ms Lee said the US State Department had been contacted to focus on Griner’s circumstances. She asked US authorities to “pay special attention” to those imprisoned in Russia.
“The one thing about Russian prisoners, when they are foreign [or] from foreign countries, the treatment is horrific,” Ms Lee said Saturday.
“Their lives are in jeopardy. Their health is in jeopardy. We don’t know whether they’ll make it. Their healthcare is not provided. They’re not eating right.”